What was the Question?

  • Acts 4:5-12
  • Psalm 23
  • I John 3:16-24
  • John 10:11-18

In the seventies there was a contemporary Christian music hit that repeated over and over, “Jesus is the answer for the world today.” “Jesus is the answer” became a popular slogan on t-shirts, bumper-stickers, graffiti locations and everything in between. Where possible it became a trend for cynics to write underneath, “What’s the question?”

That is actually a good question, and maybe just as good a question is whether we have the same question for Jesus to answer that the ancient Jews did, that his disciples did, that the church fathers of the first millennium did, and that our forefathers of just a couple hundred years ago did.

Is the main point to have some sort of paradise rather than torture in life after death? Many seem to think so. That is certainly important as an aspect of most believers’ motivation, and wanting to know what comes after death is one of the reasons many people are interested in religion to begin with.



That You May Believe

  • Acts 4:32-35
  • Psalm 133
  • I John 1:1-2:2
  • John 20:19-31

Assuming that you do, why do you believe in Jesus?

Of course I’m not trying to talk you out of it! Nor is it my intention just to tease you by questioning the things you may find incredibly obvious, like why do you believe the sky is blue, or that the sun is hot, or that your mother loves you? But once in a while it is valuable to stop and remind ourselves of what we believe, and why.

Actually there are two different aspects of the “why” question we should stop to consider: why, as in what makes it happen; and why, as in what is the purpose of if all?

To take a simple example, if I were to ask myself why I brush my teeth regularly, on the one hand I can say that it was a habit instilled into me in childhood, and strongly reinforced by my orthodontist when I had braces as a teenager. In the other sense I can say that it reduces all sorts of health risks, and increases my chances of getting kissed once in a while.

Both are good answers to keep in mind in different contexts. If I’m looking at someone with conspicuous dental hygiene problems I need to remember the first answer –– I need to remember that not everyone has the same routines drilled into them as a child, and some suffer for the lack of it. If I’m thinking of taking a spontaneous trip somewhere for a day or two and I don’t have my toothbrush with me, it’s important to consider the latter answer –– neglecting my own dental hygiene can have consequences.

So why do you believe in Jesus, in both senses of “why”? This is the fundamental question that our texts today ask us to stop and consider.

Thomas is one of those characters that we know mostly from this passage as “the doubter.” And of course he had very good reason to doubt; there were all sorts of crazy things being told to him about the resurrection story. Trusting a combination of his vision and his tactile sensations to establish the facts of the matter isn’t really a bad way to go in such cases. But Thomas stands out a bit in John’s gospel otherwise. Whereas the other three gospels only mention him as one of the twelve apostles Jesus sent out, paired off with Matthew the tax collector, John actually gives him a nickname and a few lines of dialog before the crucifixion as well.

Thomas is called “the Twin,” or “Didymus” in Greek. That would indicate that he was probably a complete look-alike for someone; probably Jesus himself. This would have two effects on his career as an apostle: First it could result in all sorts of people mistaking him for Jesus in different circumstances, especially when he and his partner were out preaching and doing miracles of the sort Jesus sent them out to do. So when people claimed to have seen Jesus, Thomas would always have to double check and ask, “Are you sure it wasn’t me you saw there?”

Then second, it gave him more of an irreverent familiarity with Jesus than the others expressed. In John 11, when Jesus allowed his friend Lazarus to die, and then went to raise him from the dead, the disciples as a group started saying to Jesus, “That’s crazy for you to go back into Judea at this point! They’re out to kill you!” Then Jesus said something about using what daylight they had to get their basic work done, that completely went over their heads, and he started walking towards Judea. The disciples were just standing there all confused until Thomas said to the rest, “Well, we may as well tag along and get ourselves killed as well.”

Then in John 14, after Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet after dinner and as everyone was sitting around trying to digest that, he started to try to prepare them for his death within the next 24 hours, telling them how he was going to prepare a place for them and they would follow him soon enough. At this point it was once again Thomas who spoke up and said, “Boss, we have no idea where you are going! How do you expect us to follow you?!” (Thomas, being one of the fishermen, probably found a more colorful way of saying this in his original Aramaic language, but John translates the gist of the quote in very civil terms.) Jesus brushed that aside, saying that he himself was the way, leaving Thomas all the more confused.

So it was less than a week after this when one day Thomas got back from whatever work he was doing in Jerusalem to find his friends all in a bit of a state of shock, telling him they had seen Jesus alive again. In his own style Thomas probably started with something like, “Right, let me guess: he came galloping in on a flying cow!” Or as “the Twin” he might have reminded them of all the old cases of mistaken identity he had been involved in, with something like, “If you were up here looking out the window and you saw him walking up the hill over there by the Old South Wall, that was probably me.” Then when they stuck to their story regardless of what he said he finally came out with is famous line here about needing to stick his fingers into the spots where he had seen the real Jesus’ body get torn apart.

Jesus knew all this about Thomas. He wasn’t offended at any of Thomas’ irreverence. He simply walked in later, pulled his shirt up to his armpit in the left, stuck out his hands and said to his so-called twin, “There you go, Tommy, have at ‘em.”

It doesn’t actually tell us whether Thomas took him up on the offer. As with Mary Magdalene at the tomb, last week, we get the impression that John leaves out a lot of little details in his way of telling things, so though in never says that Thomas went up and shoved his fingers in, maybe he did.

The main thing is that Thomas’ reaction was not something like, “Fine. I get it: they were right and I was wrong.” Who was right wasn’t the point. The point was that from that moment Thomas came to see Jesus as both Lord and God. And that, John states in the very last verse of chapter 20 here, is the whole point of his gospel: “that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah (or Christ), the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.” How you reach that point really isn’t so important as the consideration that you finally do get there, and that it has a profound, life-changing effect on you to realize who Jesus really is and what he has done for us.

When it comes to each of our personal reasons for believing in Jesus these days, there are none of us wo believe because we were there to see what Jesus did in his time on Earth, before and after his death, so that we just can’t help but believe. There are some who believe in Jesus because their mothers always taught them that the stories in the Bible are true and they never stopped to doubt it. Some believe in Jesus because they had some profound moment of crisis in their lives when they prayed and something completely unexpected happened to resolve the crisis. Some, though probably relatively few, believe because they have explored all of the rational arguments about why we are here, how life as we know it could have come about, what sort of purpose there might be in all of this, and so forth, and they came to the conclusion that they just had to believe in God; and doing so by way of Jesus just made the most sense to them. Whatever the case may be for you, in some ways that’s sort of a secondary matter, like what got you into the habit of brushing your teeth; the main thing is that you do it.

And what effect is it supposed to have on us to, as Thomas did, acknowledge the risen Jesus as Lord and God? Acts chapter 4 points us to what the Jews involved might have seen as a Psalm 133 experience: the best and most satisfying thing that they could imagine was for brothers and sisters in Christ to “live together in unity.” This completely put them “in the flow,” in a way that kept them from competing with each other and enabled them to operate together as a whole, so that it just became natural to them to take care of each other. But rather than scaring the hard-core capitalists among you by further exploring the similarities and differences between first century Christendom and later forms of socialism, let’s just say that this is a work for God to do in your hearts, and move on to the first 12 verses of the book of 1 John.

John makes ­­­4 basic points here about believing in Jesus is all about as he sees it:

  1. He is passing on information that came from extensive first-person eyewitness testimony. Eventually the Apostles realized what Jesus meant when he said, “whoever has seen me has seen the Father,” and that provides the basis for the testimony which he sets out to declare here.
  2. He has a sort of selfish motivation involved in spreading this message, in that the more people there are sharing in this fellowship, the sweeter it is for everyone. Thus he is writing “so that our joy might be complete.”
  3. Trying to keep our problems hidden is completely counter-productive, in that it cuts us off from the most satisfying aspects of believers’ fellowship –– we need to “walk in the light”.
  4. We need to take on the two-part strategy of avoiding sin and at the same time continuously acknowledging and accepting forgiveness for our sins through the work of Jesus.

There is every reason to believe that from the moment Thomas had the opportunity to finger Jesus’ deepest wounds his life was changed in all four of these ways: he properly saw the Father in Jesus, he became personally active in spreading this message to as many others as possible, he acknowledged his history of irreverence and mistaken outbursts as sins, and he accepted forgiveness for these errors while progressively learning to make fewer and fewer of them.

So what does it mean for each of us to declare to the world that we have solid grounds for believing that God has accepted us because of what Jesus has done for us? In what way can we find more complete joy through sharing this message and experience of faith with as many as possible? What aspects of our own imperfections do we need to let God’s light shine on? And perhaps most importantly, how can we make ourselves part of a broader economy of mutual forgiveness and mutual support in continuous spiritual growth?

Try to make a point of meditating on those questions this week, letting God speak to you about what those principles mean and how to better put them into practice in your own life.

Let us pray.

“For As Yet They Did Not Understand”(Easter 2018)

  • Isaiah 25:6-9
  • Psalm 114
  • Acts 10:34-43
  • John 20:1-18

Every summer there are hundreds of traffic accidents involving cars and motorcycles where the car driver is technically at fault, and where the explanation is, “I honestly looked, but I just didn’t see him coming there.” The problem is that, when driving, we can automatically program our minds to be on the lookout for other cars and trucks, but fail to register something so small as a motorcycle in our peripheral vision as a potentially fast moving vehicle to watch out for. Many times drivers really just don’t see them coming before pulling out or turning in front of them.

How far does that same phenomenon of perception figure into the Easter story here? Let’s take a look and find out.

The Easter story in the Gospel of John is told from the perspectives of three runners. First Mary ran to Peter’s house, then Peter ran to the tomb, then John outran Peter. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.

Mary of Magdala was one of at least three, probably four, Mary’s in Jesus’ life. First we have his mother Mary of course; then there was a Mary married to a fellow named Clopas, and then Mary Magdalene, as she is commonly called. Then there are different theories of how one of these Marys could have also been Mary of Bethany, the sister of Lazarus and Martha, or she could be Mary number 4. So when the Gospel of Matthew refers to Mary Magdalene, a.k.a. Mary of Magdala, going around with “the other Mary” it’s anyone’s guess which one he was talking about.

Luke introduces Mary Magdalene in chapter 8 of his gospel, identifying her as the one “from whom seven demons had come out.” This immediately follows on the story in the end of Luke 7 where a “sinful woman” –– a.k.a. a prostitute –– made a huge scene of pampering Jesus’ feet in the home of a Pharisee named Simon. There is a tradition of identifying Mary Magdalene as being this same “sinful woman,” and if Jesus had just removed seven demons from her that would explain why the woman in Luke 7 was so demonstrative of her affection for him right in front of his critic. It would also sort of go together with the sort of reaction that this Mary had to “the gardener” who turned out to be Jesus in our reading today. Yet all that being said, the evidence to establish such an identification is fairly thin and speculative.

What sort of effects were those demons having on her? Where did the money she was spending on Jesus come from? (Luke 8:3 tells us that this Mary was one of the women who “were helping to support [Jesus and his 12 disciples] out of their own means.) Could Jesus possibly have been, to some extent, “romantically involved” with this particular Mary? There is plenty of speculation about all of these questions to go around, but they are rather beside the point of our story today.

Whatever the case, this Mary, who we can just call Mary M, wanted to be the first to show respect to Jesus’ dead body –– the body of the man that she cared about so deeply, who had been her teacher, her deliverer and the focus of her purpose in life for the past year or two –– but before sunrise that Sunday morning she discovered that there was no dead body of Jesus to be found!

One significant detail in the way John tells the story is that Mary M never actually goes into the tomb. Why is that? The way Luke tells it, the whole collection of Marys that had been following Jesus around, with a few other women besides, had come to the tomb together, carrying their jugs full of embalming spices, and together they thoroughly investigated the empty tomb before going to tell the guys. Why does John have a different version? For that matter why wouldn’t Mary M go in? Her whole point in coming was to go and cover Jesus body with enough fragrant spices so that it wouldn’t start to wreak as it began to decompose. She was not shy or squeamish about performing this very intimate act on the corpse, so what would keep her from going in when she discovered the tomb was empty?

John never specifically states that Mary M came alone to the tomb, so the discrepancy with Luke’s telling is not impossible to work out here. One possibility is that with the other girls cramming themselves into the tiny burial chamber to check things out, Mary M just decided to take their word for it and rush off to tell the guys. Or maybe she was too shocked, or scared, or disoriented to think about any sort of forensic way about the situation. Whatever the case, as John tells it, Mary took off on the run to find the men so they could help her deal with the situation.

Maybe Mark (16:8) was right about the other girls in this case –– they were too scared to say anything about this to anyone –– but Mary M had to find some way of making sense of this whole business, talking about it with someone who also cared about the matter and who could help her believe that she wasn’t going crazy. How? She hadn’t figured that part out yet, but she instinctively believed that Peter was one of those she should talk to. So the first place she goes is Peter’s house, and as it happens she finds at least John, perhaps some of the other disciples, together with him there.

Peter was still trying to come to grips with the humiliation of having three times denied any connection Jesus, after he had so emphatically sworn that he was ready to die in Jesus’ defense. If anyone could relate to being confused and disoriented by the whole situation, the way Mary M was, it would be Peter. Again having a look over at Luke’s telling of the story for comparison, the other guys who happened to be there thought that maybe Mary was going crazy, but Peter had to see this for himself. So he immediately jumped up and started running for the tomb. As soon as he got there he clambered down in and saw the grave clothes lying there, with the head wrapping and body wrapping cloths lying separately from each other. This was significant for Peter: if someone had stolen the body they certainly wouldn’t have bothered to undress it first! And even if they would have unwound the cloth from around the body before stealing it, they certainly wouldn’t have carefully wound the cloth back up and put it in its proper place. Something incredible was going on here!

Peter was the first man to go into the tomb after the resurrection, but he wasn’t the first one to arrive there. That would have been John. Peter had two things going against him on the run: first, he had never actually been to the tomb before, so he only had Mary M’s description of the location to go on; and second, he was getting a bit old for these sorts of sprints across town. John had the advantage in both of these regards: John’s gospel (19:26-27) tells of how, during the crucifixion, Jesus had given him the task of looking after Mary, Jesus’ mother; and he says that he took that responsibility seriously, effective immediately. Thus John would have stuck with the elder Mary for the rest of that day, and when that Mary saw where Jesus was buried (Luke 23:55), John would have seen as well. Beyond that, John was also significantly younger than Peter, and so he was just in far better running condition.

In the excitement of the moment Peter hadn’t waited for John, and thus John felt no obligation to wait for Peter on the way. He blew past him and went straight to the tomb. But once John got there he had a bit of a funny feeling about climbing in. He just squatted in the doorway and tried to get his eyes to adjust to the darkness inside. While he was squatting there Peter arrived –– doubtless all out of breath –– shoved he way past and scrambled down in. After that the younger fellow figured the proper thing to do would be to follow him on in.

In telling this story decades after the fact, John clearly remembered his first thought there inside the tomb that morning: “OK, Mary M is not going crazy –– the body is gone. That much I believe. But what in God’s name is going on here?!” He didn’t get it yet, but he clearly recognized that there was genuinely something going on that he couldn’t naturally explain. All that was left for him to do after that was to go home and think about it. And so he did.

Meanwhile Mary M. showed up again. She hadn’t seriously tried to keep up with either of the guys on their runs, nor did she want to join them in exploring the empty tomb, but when they took off in that direction she wasn’t far behind. So when they finished their investigations and headed for home she was already outside waiting. They may or may not have had much to say to each other, but afterwards Mary M decided to stay there for a while. It says something about the extent of her disorientation at that point that seeing angels didn’t make her stop and think. She bent down to look into the tomb the same way John had at first –– crouching in the doorway –– sobbing her eyes out and not being able to see much through her tears, when she caught sight of two angels sitting there on the stone slab. This is where John’s telling starts to strike me as a bit strange: how could she see two angels sitting there, which obviously weren’t visible there when the men were in the tomb just a moment ago, and still be thinking of grave robbery? I mean, wouldn’t all of the evidence against such an interpretation of the facts be starting to dawn on her at this point? The idea that, “They have taken away my Lord” (whoever “they” might be in this case) would seem rather far-fetched at this point, wouldn’t it? Not that Peter and John were all that much brighter: they only got as far as believing that Mary M wasn’t hallucinating or making all this up, but they still hadn’t figured out what was going on.

Then Jesus shows up, and whenever Jesus shows up that changes everything.

Now the clothes that he was buried in are still there in the tomb, but obviously he didn’t show up naked, so what was he wearing? Did the angels bring down some heavenly robes for him to put on? Did he borrow some overalls from a nearby maintenance shed? This is one of those trivial little details that John doesn’t offer us much help with. He only says that somehow Mary managed to mistake Jesus for a gardener. Then Jesus asks her two important questions. First he repeated the angels’ question: “Why are you weeping?” and then the deceptively profound inquiry, “Who are you looking for?”

Mary had already told the angels why she was crying, but that answer didn’t really make sense. She needed to reconsider it. Jesus had a habit of re-asking questions when deeper consideration was needed. And to guide her in that reconsideration he tossed in the second question. Mary apparently misunderstood the implication of that second question. She took it as a kind offer of help in looking for what she was missing; sort of like if a little girl were crying because of a runaway puppy and a stranger would come to help and ask, “What does your dog look like?” She jumped on what she took to be an implied offer of help in finding the body, entirely missing the point of stopping to ask herself, “Who am I really looking for here?”

Who was she looking for? Well, obviously, she was looking for Jesus. And what was Jesus like? How would she be able to tell if she found him? That seemed like a silly thing to ask! She had been his most dedicated female follower for years; for what seemed to her like most of her life! Of course she would immediately know him if she saw him!

Except she didn’t.

The problem was that she was looking for a dead body. Just like the car driver who can’t see the motorcycle coming, she just couldn’t see him, because her mind just wasn’t at all attuned to the possibility that he could be a living person again. He was standing right in front of her and she didn’t see anything more than an anonymous guy in what she took to be a gardener’s outfit. But when he spoke her name all of a sudden she realized that she had the wrong end of the stick.

This gave her the real Easter message to bring back to the disciples. It wasn’t just that the body was gone and there wasn’t any good logical explanation; it was that they had been looking for Jesus in a completely wrong way.

All of these men and women had been walking with Jesus, eating with Jesus, sleeping in the same room with Jesus, going around the country telling people to follow Jesus… and yet they still didn’t really understand who Jesus was, what he came to do or how people should recognize him. They really didn’t understand who they were looking for. They hadn’t stopped to consider that question thoroughly enough to understand that Jesus was not a messiah come to restore the political autonomy of the nation of Israel, but the great Messiah –– the Christ –– come to restore mankind’s free fellowship with God and with each other. They needed something that philosophers would later come to call a major paradigm shift. Eventually John at least got what she was saying: one of the running motifs in the Gospel of John is what he says here in verse 9: “For as yet they did not understand…” It might have been years later though when he finally did understand.

This is what Paul means when he says in 2 Corinthians 5:16: “So from now on we regard no one from a worldly point of view. Though we once regarded Christ in this way, we do so no longer.” We can see the tomb as representing “a worldly point of view” regarding Jesus. Peter was the one who, on Easter morning, most thoroughly went into this viewpoint and recognized its limits. John was more hesitant in this regard, not being entirely comfortable with the idea of stepping into the tomb, but not yet seeing an alternative perspective. Mary, on the other hand, had been more ready than anyone to go into the tomb that morning before sunrise, but the new situation represented by the moved stone and the emptiness of the tomb completely changed her mind. She was in a state of total confusion, bordering on hysteria, but she knew that the answer wasn’t in the tomb. But then Jesus came and with one word, saying her name, he showed her that she hadn’t properly understood who and what she should be looking for. From there she was able to go and tell the others who and what they too should be looking for.

This gave them a new, broader way of looking at… well, everything. They began to explore the scriptures to see how Jesus had fulfilled them. They began to realize that his death wasn’t a defeat for their cause after all, but that their cause needed to be redefined in a way that conformed to his death, and resurrection. And above all, this showed them that Jesus message and saving work was available to everyone, not just to those who conformed to their religious preconceptions.

Many times we too, even as devoted followers of Jesus, get stuck in a place of not finding him because we are looking for the wrong sort of Jesus. Maybe we are looking for a Jesus who will establish our political tribe as the winners of whatever conflict we feel we deserve to win. Or maybe we are looking for a magical talisman of sorts to fulfill all of our wishes for comfort and security in this life. In these and so many other ways we may be looking for the wrong sort of Jesus; we may be “searching for the living among the dead” (Luke 24:5).

As we consider the Easter message today, let’s try to avoid letting our preconceptions of what we are looking for blind us to what God is trying to show us. Let’s try to avoid not recognizing things like oncoming motorcycles as what they are just because they don’t fit together with our preconceptions of what we should be looking out for. In the same way let’s try to avoid mistaking Jesus for just some random gardener or maintenance worker. Each of us, in different ways, needs to overcome our own blindness as to who Jesus is that are caused by what we were expecting him to be. Again, in this regard, we need to look at Matthew 25:40 & 45: “whatever you did (not do) for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did (not do) for me.”

Let us pray.


Oh Prisoners of Hope!

  • Zechariah 9:8-12
  • Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29
  • John 12:12-16

Palm Sunday. So many meanings. So many symbols to consider. Where can we start so as not to slip into cliché?

In our gospel reading today we have Jesus arriving in Jerusalem, having made a major impression in the northern part of what was once Israel, he was now coming into the capital with a huge fan following. They had one great hope: this guy could be the promised hero who would deliver them from being under the heel of the Roman Empire.

They wanted to feel free. They wanted to have the confidence of knowing that one of their own people was in charge, not like King Herod, who was king in name only –– in practice the puppet of the Romans. They had read the writings of in the book of Daniel saying that they had about 70 times 7 years’ worth of problems to endure before this hero would come and put things right, and by most calculations that time was about up; so that meant that the timing was about perfect for a miracle to happen and for King David’s throne to be properly restored in Jerusalem. It was this hope which kept them going.

Jesus had been travelling around doing miracles, healing people of all sorts of diseases and handicaps, winning arguments with traditional religious authorities and speaking with an awesome sort of power in his words. Among his fans there was a strong sense that he could very well be THE ONE. When he came into Jerusalem to properly celebrate the time of the Passover then their hopes were in high gear. They improvised a hero’s welcome into the capital for him with what they had handy: old clothes, palm fronds and a donkey colt. It wasn’t much, especially compared to the major military parade that marked the arrival of the Roman governor Pontius Pilate’s arrival in Jerusalem a few days earlier, but would have to do. After all, Jesus had famously taken a donation of just five bread rolls and two fish and used only those provisions to adequately feed a crowd of thousands. So they were waiting to see if God would do a Cinderella-type of miracle of turning their simple gestures of adulation into the sort of power that could topple an empire.

That didn’t happen, at least not in the form that they were hoping for. Their hope was deferred yet again. But for one brief moment, at the beginning of the week when everything was to go completely crazy in the Jesus movement, they were able to share a tremendous thrill of hope.

I was long after that, the gospel writer tells us, after those that remained in the movement had started to come to grips with the different sort of kingdom that Jesus came to establish, that they noticed the connection between the poor man’s triumphant procession (literally) that they were able to give him and the prophecy in Zechariah 9. Thus, even though this portion from Zechariah is not part of the official readings for this day I feel it is quite appropriate to toss it in here; even to take a moment to focus on what the prophet had to say, in context, about the hero on the donkey colt.

Zechariah was a young man, near as we can tell probably born somewhere in what is now Iraq, in slavery within the Babylonian empire. But after the Persian Empire conquered the Babylonians, Zechariah was sent as part of the delegation under the general Zerubbabel to take part in the rebuilding of Jerusalem. Part of his job, together with his partner Haggai, was to keep the working crew motivated in the back-breaking labor of re-stacking the stones to make Jerusalem into a walled city and place of worship again.

Haggai’s part in this message was to tell people that to receive God’s blessings they would have to keep their butts in gear far better than they had done. Zechariah in turn was able to take a more positive tack on the subject: Things are going to work out. God really is just, he really does keep his promises, and he will protect his people from harm. Things were not going to instantly and magically get better right away as soon as they got the job done, but they were still doing a valuable work, and someday a great king would come to rule in the city they were working on. As part of this, Zachariah told them, the Jews would be internationally respected as sources of wisdom and sound judgement, and the nations around them were destined to fall apart as what goes around comes around for them. In short, God takes care of his own.

But then in chapter 9 Zechariah comes out with a rather startling prediction: this new king’s power will not depend on military force! Chariots, war horses, archery regiments… gone. People will live in completely secure homes. Things that were stolen from them as spoils of war will be returned with generous interest. And above all, their leader will be legendary, not as a mighty conqueror, but as a peace-maker; not riding on a war horse, but on a young donkey.

Brian Zahnd, an author and megachurch pastor from Missouri, has made an important observation in this regard: when it comes to monuments found in capital cities all over the western world, “there’s always some dude on a horse.” Every nation wants to celebrate their own conquering hero, riding on a mighty charger, leading his nation to victory and glory. Displaying these heroes on horseback is a tradition which goes back to the time of Alexander the Great, and continues forward to the time of Finland’s C.G. Mannerheim. Even the less-than-conquering Confederate generals in the deep south of the United States have their monuments showing them on horseback, giving the message that, “even if we officially lost the war, we still have power and we are still in charge down here.” (Who the “we” is in that case is another story, that doesn’t go with this particular message. Suffice to say there are good reasons for taking down many of those monuments these days.) But Jesus never showed up on a magnificent white horse, or any other colored horse for that matter. His riding experience, so far as the Bible tells us, was limited to this little donkey. That should tell us something about his priorities as a leader.

A few verses after telling about Zion’s king coming on a donkey colt, and all that that symbolizes, Zechariah refers to those working on rebuilding Jerusalem as “prisoners of hope,” as he reminds them to get back to their fortress-building project. I find that a beautiful expression! In many respects it is a classic oxymoron, on par with Shakespeare’s “sweet sorrow,” or various empires’ “military intelligence”; hope should be a source of liberty rather than bondage. Hope is the realization that some important factors in life as we know it are not pre-determined and certain, and that there are positive outcomes that are worth working our way towards. How then did the prophet see hope as a prison for his audience? In short, hope is also that to which we voluntarily “sell ourselves” into service, believing that we can make a positive difference, even if we can’t be sure how that will work out in practice.

Those who see their king riding into a position of authority on a donkey are inevitably prisoners of hope. We are not those who trust in horsepower (Psalm 20:7), or in military superiority of any sort. We are not even pretending that there is certainty about the future that we are working towards. We believe that good will come of our efforts, though we don’t know when, or specifically what kind of good even. Yet still we keep laboring; we keep building the fortress that we have been commissioned to build.

Approximately 40 years after Jesus, Zion’s financially poor and politically uncrowned king, fulfilled Zechariah’s prophecy by riding into Jerusalem on a donkey colt, the whole city was wiped out –– completely flattened by the Romans. It never served as the re-established political capital for a completely independent kingdom of Israel, as Zechariah and his immediate audience had hoped. Was their work thus wasted? I cannot answer on their behalf, but speaking for myself, and for the Christian Church of the 21st century, I would say not.

Their work maintained the hope that enabled crowds of worshipers from all around the Roman world to come to Jerusalem on that early spring day nearly 2000 years ago, where they were able to witness the arrival of a very different sort of king into that city. On the back of a young donkey just barely old enough to carry him, came a man, who was somehow more than a man. In the coming week he would cement his enmity with the religious authorities of the day by violently attacking those doing business in the temple, he would be betrayed by a member of his inner circle of followers, and suffer a brutal public execution, but then two days later his body would go missing from the grave where the authorities had him buried.

Zachariah’s prisoners of hope didn’t accomplish what they hoped to accomplish, but they inadvertently accomplished something far more important.

What sort of hope then are you and I prisoner to? What might come of the efforts that our hopes effectively force us to make? These questions lead to all sorts of different possibilities about which we can never know for certain. That’s why it’s called hope. Yet in the last verse of what is probably the most famous chapter in the Bible, 1 Corinthians 13, Paul mentions that hope ranks up there with faith and love as one of the most enduring principles of Christianity. Love is the most important one, but hope, together with faith, remains a priority principle.

For those of us following the king on the donkey colt, we don’t struggle for the power to determine how things will be; we leave some things to God, focusing our own efforts on following our Master as instruments of his peace. There is a lot to be said for working hard towards given goals, while at the same time accepting the possibility that things will go entirely contrary to our plans, because God, in all of his loving kindness, has a bigger plan:

The stone that the builders rejected as become the capstone;
the Lord has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.
-Psalm 118:23-24

Let us pray.

The Melchizedek Consideration

  • Jeremiah 31:31-34
  • Psalm 51:1-12
  • Hebrews 5:5-10
  • John 12:20-33

Hebrews 5 introduces into the New Testament a character that is mentioned a grand total of twice in the Hebrew Scriptures: Melchizedek. This fellow originally comes up in the narrative in Genesis 14. To tell that story in brief, Abraham, who was in his mid-70s –– a little less than half way through his lifespan –– and still going by the name of Abram at the time, had been travelling around the Middle East for a while with his childless wife Sarai (later to be called Sarah) and his nephew Lot. They had spent some time down in Egypt, where Sarai briefly became part of the Pharaoh’s harem, resulting in a massive curse on the Egyptian royal household, so the Egyptians paid off Abraham and his family generously to remove the curse, and themselves, from their land. Abraham thus became pretty rich, with plenty of livestock and his own little private army. Eventually his and Lot’s holdings in these regards became too big for them to share the same territory, so by mutual agreement Lot left his uncle’s company and went to settle in Sodom, one of the city-states down by the northern tip of the Dead Sea.

That resulted all sorts of problems, the first of which was Lot being taken as a prisoner of war. The cities of the Jordan River Valley were vassals of a little empire in what is now Iran, called Elam. After about a dozen years’ worth of such humiliation they decided to rebel against the empire; leading to a war between four warlords representing the empire and five warlords representing the valley’s struggle for autonomy. The rebels lost, and Lot and his family were taken as prisoners in the process. When word of this got back to Abram he took his own little private army and went on a rescue mission. They came to the camp of the empire’s forces by night and did some serious damage to the sleeping armies, killing many of their commanders and chasing the survivors out of the valley to the north. In doing so they liberated all of the prisoners and re-captured all of the spoils of war that the empire’s army had taken.

The process of Abram returning the booty and prisoners to the warlords of the valley was overseen by Melchizedek, presumably the first king of the city-state of Jerusalem (which at that time was called just Salem). Melchizedek came out to serve refreshments and to congratulate Abram on a job well done. Beyond that it mentions that Melchizedek was “a priest of God Most High,” and in that capacity he pronounced a blessing on Abram from this God. Abram in turn paid him a gratuity of 10% of his take from the victory. Nothing else is said about Melchizedek until we come to the Psalms.

Among tunes which King David wrote that seem to have a bit of a hip-hop groove to them –– basically saying, “We’re awesome because we have God on our side,” there is Psalm 110, where  verse 4 says that, besides being king, God had given David a permanent role as a priest of sorts; not muscling in on the Levites’ system, but going back to the heritage of the guy who was the original king of David’s capital city, back in Abraham’s time: Melchizedek. This is the thread that the writer of the book of Hebrews picks up on, saying that Jesus’ spiritual authority during the time of his ministry was based on his in turn having inherited King David’s role of high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

What else do we know about this guy? Well… nothing. We don’t know who his parents were, or whether he left any significant descendants. We don’t know how big a city-state he ruled over, or how his government was organized. We don’t know what rituals he did to please his god, or whether Abram might have learned any of those from him. All we know is that, according to the story in Genesis, he was in charge of the civil government of Jerusalem, he was a priest of the one true God, and he pronounced a blessing on Abram, for which he was paid a fairly generous gratuity. But even that little bit of information opens up some fascinating possibilities for contemplation.

So what lessons are there for us to consider regarding Melchizedek’s priesthood? I propose a few here.

  1. It was from entirely outside of the Jewish traditions.

When Melchizedek came out to serve refreshments and blessings as Abram returned the spoils that had been taken from Sodom and its neighbor cities there was not yet any such thing as Jews, and there wouldn’t be for more than a thousand years still! Abraham was a childless middle-aged man who was hoping against hope that his hot looking but infertile wife would someday give him a son. Quite obviously his relationship with God could not be based on the authority of tribes destined to descend from his great-grandsons Levi and Judah! Much less so would Melchizedek’s faith have been based on a concept of Jewishness!

In John 4:22 Jesus tells the Samaritan woman at the well that her people don’t really know what they are worshipping, and that “salvation is from the Jews,” but she was convinced that when the Messiah would come he would solve that problem as well. He did.

This was something in many respects new –– something that the Jewish religious experts were not entirely ready for –– yet it was not entirely unprecedented in the Old Testament story. In his “home town tour” in Luke 4 Jesus reminded people that neither the widow that Elijah helped in Sidon nor the Syrian general Naaman, whose leprosy Elisha healed, were Jews: sometimes God helps “outsiders” before attending to the needs of those who feel that they have a special agreement with him. Salvation came by way of the Jews, but it was not the Jews’ exclusive property. That was the message that sealed Nazareth’s rejection of him. Yet he continued to preach it, undercutting the hopes of many that he would be the sort of political messiah who would eliminate Roman dominance over Judea.

Today we take it for granted that most of us who self-identify as Christians don’t have to trace our ancestry back to Abraham or even maintain a properly kosher lifestyle. We might breathe a quick prayer of thanks for letting us in, but even that much humility is rare among self-identified Christians these days. The more common phenomenon is for Christians to assume that we are the “good guys” and that those of other religions, or those without religion, are not really the subject of God’s concern as much as we are. That was precisely the mentality that Jesus was preaching against in Nazareth. How upset do you get when someone passes Jesus’ message to you of, “sorry, but it’s not just about you”?

This is probably why, in our reading today from John 12, we have the Greeks coming to see Jesus. They heard about this new Jewish rabbi with a profound message of hope and inclusion that was inspiring many of his countrymen and driving others completely crazy. The realized that, as with Socrates, this message which challenged people’s familiar, comfortable perspectives could get this teacher killed, and they were interested in talking with him about the possibility of offering their protection. The message they passed by way of Philip, the one in Jesus’ inner circle with the most Greek sounding name, was probably something along those lines. Jesus didn’t go to talk with them though, not because he had anything against Greeks or because he considered them less important than Jews, but because he knew than he actually needed to die. We’ll come back to this in closing.

  1. It wasn’t based on any sort of law or written code of conduct.

Abraham was a very intelligent and spiritual man, obviously, but even so he was probably illiterate. Likewise most of the Hebrew shepherds prior to Moses seem to have had little use for written laws. Their interactions with others were regulated rather by a code of honor and hospitality, with strong oral recitation traditions keeping alive the memories of heroes and villains whose adventures had something to teach future generations.

This is how the story of Melchizedek would have passed from Abraham all the way down to Moses. This system wasn’t without its problems; the retribution demanded by some of these codes of honor could be brutal beyond anything most of us could stomach these days. But the point was that rather than being based on a legal code, the knowledge of God and God’s will which came by way of the Melchizedekian priesthood was based on relationships, and in particular the possibility of being a friend of God.

Our reading from Jeremiah today points in this same direction: the promise and hope for the future that the prophet offers is that someday all those who worship God will have his will written on their hearts. And this relates to having their sins forgiven. How? To give a practical illustration from my own day-to-day life, in many ways the law served (and serves) like my dog’s leash: it sets important limits to keep the one restrained by it out of the worst sorts of trouble he/she/it might get into. The law, like a leash, also kept the Jewish people relatively close to their Master. Of course leashes can lead to various forms of entanglement, but if the dog in question is prone to run off and do various forms of damage, or to endanger itself in traffic, the leash remains necessary as a means of protecting the animal from itself. Likewise our sinful tendencies to run off and not pay attention to what God wants of us make laws rather necessary, but the ideal condition is one where we stop trying to run off on our own adventures away from God; where we all become in tune enough with him so that our previous attempts to run off no longer concern us, and where the leash is no longer necessary.

  1. It did not involve any formal ordination rituals or measures of quality control.

Here’s the scary part: the Melchizedekian priesthood is all about acting on God’s behalf without any official approval. Jesus wasn’t accepted as a priest by the Jewish religious authorities of his time. David probably wasn’t either. There wasn’t any continuous order of priests tracing their heritage through a historical chain back 2000 years before Jesus’ time on earth to the priest-king who reportedly started it all. Those of Aaron’s order of priests could trace their lines of succession back to the Exodus; the order of Melchizedek was a more mystical sort of calling, entirely outside of the religious authority systems of Jesus’ day, and ours.

The biblical book of Hebrews is ironically appropriate source for this teaching. There was a rumor in the early church that this book was written by the Apostle Paul, but there are many good reasons why scholars today no longer believe that could be the case. Thus we don’t know who originally wrote this book, and on what authority its message stands. In this regard it is as much a mystery to us as Melchizedek himself.

Working, for example, with independent church pastors in equatorial Africa, one quickly sees what sort of risks there are in having a sort of priesthood where someone can claim to represent God without being tested and ordained by any established traditional authority structure: together with the many genuine, sincere, devoted preachers with a strong commitment to properly representing the message of Jesus to their own people, there are far too many con men out there, trying to sell magical help from God to those who don’t know any better than trying to buy such services. Their claims to be part of an unverifiable mystical priesthood going back to a prehistoric priest-king of Jerusalem 4000 years ago could be true, or it could be the worst possible sort of untruth.

How can we prevent this sort of abuse of those claiming to represent God according to Melchizedek’s priesthood? Frankly we can’t. Insincere and abusive priests, as cursed as they are before God, are part of the life of life of the Church that we are powerless to prevent. Nor have the more bureaucratically developed branches of the priesthood found any foolproof ways of preventing such abuse within their own ranks for that matter.

The Parable of the Weeds in Matthew 13 describes these false representatives of God quite directly: planted by the enemy to prevent the Lord’s “wheat” from growing as well as it should, these weeds cannot be removed during the growing season without seriously damaging the crop. Thus their punishment becomes the first order of business when the harvest season comes. When God’s justice is finally revealed these “weeds” will be the least enviable of all people, but in the mean time we just have to recognize that among those who claim to represent God there will always be some such impersonators of those which God has truly planted, who really are of the order of Melchizedek.

Why does God allow this? Couldn’t he have stopped the devil from placing these thieves among us? Here I will not presume to speak for God, and I would encourage each of you through prayer and meditation to seek your own answers from Him on this matter. Speaking for myself though, I would venture a guess that God allowed this impurity among his people to keep us all a bit humble and to prevent us from feeling that our own group, whatever group that happens to be, is perfectly pure grain, without weeds, such that we can feel justified in attacking everyone else to protect the interest of our own tribe, or denomination, or nation, or political party or… whatever way we distinguish between “us” and “them”.

Of course we keep trying to appoint only genuinely Godly leaders for our congregations, and we keep trying to hold them responsible to properly represent Jesus’ message of salvation and redemption; but we can never assume that all of those on our side are wheat, and that large portions of our religious competitors are just weeds. Besides doing our best at quality control we must both extend Christ’s compassion to all those growing within our own fields and the surrounding fields, and at the same time bear in mind that false teachers and false representatives of the Gospel will appear among us.

This latter factor requires each of us to remain vigilant and to consider whether the messages we receive come from the order of Melchizedek or not. Anyone can claim such a position, but not all can reveal the love of God that should be its trademark. Whatever the case, God’s grace has not put us in a position of comfortable dogmatic certainty, and we should remember to be thankful for this.

As we approach the time of year for remembering the final week of Jesus’ earthly ministry, we must remember that this is a story which mixes a deep sense of vulnerability with what might be considered a rather convoluted form of triumph. That vulnerability, together with that very different understanding of what victory means from Jesus’ perspective, are key aspects of our salvation.

Let us pray.

The Power to Hurt / The Power to Heal (for Sunday, March 11)

  • Numbers 21:4-9
  • Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22
  • Ephesians 2:1-10
  • John 3:14-21

One day after a high school religious education class one particularly bright young lady came to me with a question. Among her other talents she was a very competitive kick-boxer, and she had a boyfriend who was practicing similar sports. Her boyfriend was talking about getting a radical full back tattoo to be on display in his competitions to intimidate his opponents, and his idea was to have a big, deadly-looking snake wrapped around a cross, poised to strike. The girl wanted to know if this would be an image that Christians would/should find overly offensive or demonic.

It was a fair question, in that many Christians seem to make a point of taking offense at as many aspects of popular culture as possible, especially those which try to convolute religious symbolism. But my immediate reaction was to say no, there is no justification for any believer to take offense at such an image, as it relates to one of the most important motifs in the Bible; and if he would want to play it safe politically he could qualify the image with a small text in the corner siting the reference to John 3:14.

I don’t know how that particular story ended. I’m not sure if the guy ended up getting the sort of big tattoo he was fantasizing about; or if he did how it might have affected his personal identity, his sporting career, his working life and their romance. It seemed like maybe the girl was looking for grounds to talk him out of it, and she was hoping that I might point out all sorts of dangers in having that sort of image on his back that he hadn’t thought of. Maybe my response was less helpful in that regard. But on the other hand perhaps by looking at the meaning that this image would convey in its Biblical context, perhaps he decided that it wouldn’t go with the message that he was trying to give as a fighter. The fighter’s message, in the best trash-talking tradition, is to say to his opponent in every possible way, “I have the power to hurt you, badly, suckaaa!” The message from the Bible related to a deadly snake on a pole, morphed into a cross, is, “I have the power to heal you, completely, my child, but you are going to have to confront your fear and look at me for that to happen.” Somehow that latter message doesn’t seem to go with a fighter’s competitive strategy of intimidation. Then again, perhaps it would create just enough confusion as to what the image was trying to say to throw opponents just a bit off balance, providing a competitive advantage in that way.

The same sort of confusion of mixed message relates to the original understanding of this image as well. The serpent on a pole image was also associated with some of the gods of the pagan people surrounding the Israelites, and in this context the Bible tells us that the good King Hezekiah eventually had the original bronze serpent destroyed because people were worshiping it as an idol (2 Kings 18:4). There is also the story of the contest between Moses and Aaron and the court magicians of the pharaoh in Exodus 7 where they all did a trick of throwing their staffs on the ground and having them turn into snakes, only Aaron’s snake/staff ate up all of the other ones. So maybe Moses had an idea that the God who spoke to him from the burning bush also had some connection with snakes, or did he?

From sources outside of the Bible we learn that snakes were associated with healing in ancient times, in part from the symbolism involved in shedding their skin and becoming new again, and in part because small quantities of snake venom were used in different forms of drugs that were used at the time (and which continued to be used up until the cowboy era in the American wild west). There may have been some antiseptic or anti-inflammatory properties in some venoms, but more than that if you can cause people to suffer without doing them permanent damage they are likely to believe that it is helping to cure them. How much of that sort of thinking is our faith associated with?

More importantly though, we have the question of whether God is the source of the suffering that we experience, and that we need his mercy to escape from. Are we sick to start with because God is always angry with us? If so, why is God always so angry and vengeful towards us? If not, why do so many bad things keep happening to us, and why doesn’t God do more to stop them? In this sense the question of the snake is very much the question of what God is ultimately like. Is God’s primary message to us one of, “I have the power to hurt you, badly,” or one of “I have the power to heal you completely”?

Is God characterized by the exchange that cynics have used to summarize the evangelical Christian message?

Jesus [knocking on a door]: “Let me in!”
Occupant: “Why?”
Jesus: “So I can save you!”
Occupant: “Save me from what?”
Jesus: “From what I’m going to do to you if you don’t let me in!”

If that is the case then the intimidation message takes precedence over the healing one. But that is precisely the message that Jesus came to upend. That is precisely the message that Paul is speaking out against in Ephesians chapter 2. In short: we were all on our own paths to self-destruction when God stepped in and brought us together in Christ; not because we deserved it, but because he chose to have mercy on us.

I believe that a slightly older friend of mine is correct in saying that God’s attitude towards us is a lot like his attitude towards his grandchildren: he keeps an old wood stove burning in his study where he does much of his work, and his grandchildren are freely allowed to visit him there while he is working, but he has to remind them not to touch the wood stove. This is a hard, fast rule that they all must recognize. Breaking this rule can result in tremendous pain and suffering for them, not because their Grampa is a mean and spiteful character, but because ignoring his wisdom in some basic matters can lead to them seriously hurting themselves.

We were all, figuratively speaking, playing carelessly very close to the fire when God stepped in through Jesus to tell us to stop that and to join him in a much safer area.

But not everyone is saved from self-destruction. In Matthew 25 we have the “goats” who are destined to be severely punished because they didn’t care about “the least of these” people who are still part of God’s family. Why doesn’t God save the goats too? Did the goats really have a choice in the matter of being goats, and if not, is God justified in punishing them for being goats to begin with? OK, we are not talking about literal goats here, but rather people who have a goat-like tendency to but their heads against others; but the same principle applies: if they can’t help it, it is rather unfair for God to punish them for it.

We are not going to work out all of the details of the extent to which humans are able to choose their behaviors here today, and all of the implications of that for justice. (Those who are interested can contact me later for some good book recommendations on the subject.) Suffice to say, the “sheep” are not entitled to be proud of being naturally better than “goats,” and “goats” are not entitled to resent the “unfair advantages” given to the “sheep”. And as much as the mysteries of free will put it within our power, all of us need to look to Jesus up on the cross, somewhat like the bronze serpent on the pole. In doing so we recognize that our careless and rebellious actions can cause real suffering for ourselves and others, and we endeavor to “go and sin no more.”

Then beyond that we come to see how God’s purpose isn’t to cause us to suffer as much as possible for ignoring his instructions, but to instruct us in ways that reduce our suffering and increase our thriving in life, and to have mercy on us for the mistakes we make as part of the learning process. We don’t need to shy away from God for fear of being punished; we can instead draw near to him with hopes of being healed from the pains we have caused ourselves.

There is one other important point worth clarifying here. The purpose of this message is not to say that all those who suffer only have themselves to blame. While that is the case far more than we like to admit, of course we also have the book of Job, in which the main message is that suffering doesn’t always make sense, but God is bigger than all that and it is worth trusting him anyway. Whatever the causes of our own suffering, it is worth going to God and begging for his mercy to overcome the pain that we are going through. Whatever form of suffering others are going through, it is worth reaching out to them in compassion, without assuming that we have a right to condemn them for having brought in on themselves.

When Jesus died for us, though he did so knowingly and willingly, he did not bring that suffering onto himself by his own ill-considered actions. Part of what looking to Jesus on the cross should remind us of is not to assume that those who are suffering necessarily deserve it.

Together we must look to the cross –– to the snake –– as the image of suffering caused by human aggression, rebellion and disobedience –– our own actions –– which afflicted, and still afflict, the most innocent as well as the guilty. In doing so we place our hope in the promise that we can indeed be healed.

Let us pray.


Neither Signs nor Wisdom

  • Exodus 20:1-17
  • Psalm 19
  • I Corinthians 1:18-25
  • John 2:13-22

The marketing of so-called Christianity these days is a pretty competitive business, because, in case you haven’t noticed, there’s a lot of money to be made at it. I don’t mean to crap in the nest here, but let’s be honest about some things: a lot of Christian clergymen of all sorts are in competition with each other for what can be called “market shares” because capturing a good share of that market guarantees that, for a relatively modest material investment, this business can turn a serious profit.

Now of course on the other hand we have traditional state churches and their descendants which do not so much market their services as position themselves as the guardians of an important aspect of cultural tradition for their primary customer base. In the old days they enjoyed enough of a monopoly position in the religious service market where they didn’t have to go out convince people to buy their wares; people needed religion and these priests controlled the only legal outlet for this necessary commodity. Nowadays their monopoly positions have been largely legally dismantled, and their market shares have been continuously slipping, but they continue to enjoy a large enough market share where they can rely on their established position rather than an aggressive marketing strategy to keep the business going.

Business? Isn’t Christianity supposed to be a voluntary association, operating as a series of labors of love?

In theory yes. Jesus has called us to love one another and to serve one another out of gratitude for the love that we have received. The purpose of the Church is supposed to be to coordinate those efforts to help us to serve each other more effectively.  The problem is that since what we have to offer in this regard is something that people need, and which they are many times willing to pay for. And when there is money to be made, greed abhors a vacuum.

Why people need religion so badly was explained quite well 180-some years ago by the young French aristocrat Alexis de Tocqueville in his classic book, Democracy in America:

The short lifespan of sixty years can never content the imagination of man; nor can the imperfect joys of this world satisfy his heart. Man alone, of all created beings, displays a natural contempt for his existence, and yet a boundless desire to exist; he scorns life, but he dreads annihilation. These different feelings incessantly urge his soul to the contemplation of a future state, and religion directs his musings in that direction. Religion, then, is simply another form of hope; and it is no less natural to the human heart than hope itself. Men cannot abandon their religious faith without a kind of aberration of intellect, and a sort of violent distortion of their true natures; but they are invincibly brought back to more pious sentiments; for unbelief is an accident, and faith is the only permanent state of mankind. If we only consider religious institutions in a purely human point of view, they may be said to derive an inexhaustible element of strength from man himself, since they belong to one of the constituent principles of human nature.[1]

The average lifespan has increased significantly since then, and the technological means of keeping ourselves comfortable and amused have improved dramatically over the last century and a half, but that does not solve the basic problem and need for hope beyond this life that Tocqueville is talking about here. For this system to work, however, it has to be a matter of free choice for the person in question. Forcing a person to participate in a given way of worshipping will tend to take away more hope than it gives, making the compulsory religion far weaker than a voluntary one. So then so long as people are able to choose, and as long as there are competing interests providing this important service, it will tend to evolve in the direction of being a business, and a highly competitive one at that.

So how are these services marketed? What sort of sales pitch and what sort of product promises do different churches put out there? Of course many would like to say that, “our church provides the surest route to a glorious after-life, and the most effective means of getting others in as well.” It doesn’t take much critical thinking skill, however, to realize that such claims are fairly likely to be false. If God wants to reveal his mercy to people and give them some form of bliss in the world to come, would it really make sense for him to give one particular organization exclusive distribution rights for this bliss? Nor can any church making such claims provide customer testimonials to back them up, say, in the form of dead people coming back and telling us how this particular church’s system got them into heaven, and how those who tried get there by means of competing brands weren’t so lucky.

So if we leave out the claims of certainty about the after-life in heaven, that leaves us with two primary marketing strategies that religious organizations have been using since the time that the New Testament was written: “signs” and “wisdom”; and in the first chapter of his first letter to the Corinthians, Paul rejects them both. Why is that?

The “signs” Paul is talking about are miraculous favors that people claim that God is doing for them. Some are simple, potentially silly things, like claiming to be able to miraculously speak in an unknown language. But considering all of the personal value of the experience and the risks of self-deception involved in “speaking in tongues” is a very long discussion unto itself that we don’t have time for in the context of this message. Suffice to say, when Paul talks about the signs that the Jews were demanding, it is highly unlikely that Pentecostal style worship is what they were looking for.

They might have been more impressed with people being healed of horrible diseases like leprosy, or the dead being raised, or fire being called down from heaven to burn up bad guys; but doing those sorts of “magic tricks” to impress an audience was not the focus of Jesus’ ministry. Nor should it be the focus of churches today which claim to operate in the name of Jesus. Selling magical services to help people get the things they want in this life –– a bigger home, a fine car, career success, healthy and intelligent children, or lots of money from wherever –– was not what Jesus came to give us, and not what Paul was recommending for the Corinthians.

On the other side of town in Corinth there was the Greek intellectual community. They were hoping that the meaning of life, and hope for more than just the limited joys of the human experience, could be found by strengthening the mind through intellectual discipline. In the great Greek philosopher Aristotle’s teaching the part of each of us that we can hope will live on after death was not the body or the soul, but the mind –– the essence of the person’s thinking. Paul had no problem joining them in conversation about big transcendent questions, but he tried to make it clear to these Greeks that they weren’t going to reach God purely based on the strength of their minds. Then looking at his church in Corinth, Paul sort of realized that their overall intellectual abilities were nothing that anyone would be particularly impressed with (verse 26), but God fully accepted them anyway.

There is no question about the historical fact that Jesus was both a miracle worker and a powerful speaker, both in addressing mass audiences and debating with individual intellectuals. The same merits, in somewhat derivative form, can also be attributed to Paul. But neither the miracles not the flashes of intellectual brilliance from either were the bases of their ministries. In fact both considered them to be somewhat of a distraction from the core issue of the faith: the message of the cross.

The core message that Jesus came to bring was that of his self-sacrifice for the guilty. He wasn’t promising his followers some concrete collection of material benefits, and he became rather irritated with those who followed him around expecting that they would benefit from the miracles he was doing (John 6:26). And then when a group of Greek intellectuals who had heard of Jesus came around to talk with him and intellectually size him up (in John chapter 12), rather than offering them some of the wisdom he had, he just told his disciples who were relaying the message for the Greeks that “a kernel of wheat has to fall into the ground and die to if it is to bear fruit.” Allowing himself to die was more important than the offer of intellectual repartee. It was to be in dying that he would ultimately be glorified, and as it was explained already in today’s gospel reading from John 2, the only big sign he would offer was not to somehow miraculously kill off all kinds of Romans with fire from heaven, as Moses or Elijah might have done, but to himself rise from the dead.

Jesus’ true glory came in giving up all of his rights and self-interest, more than anyone else had ever done, thus making it possible for us to overcome our own selfish interests enough to qualify as true “friends of God”.  It was in the strength of his love, not the strength of his magic or the strength of his intellect, that his glory was realized. This was the basis of the advertising campaign that Paul was recommending for the church of Corinth.

Can we accept Paul’s, and Jesus’, marketing priorities here? It might not be as effective in drawing huge crowds as a campaign based on impressive miracles or ingenious arguments, but taking up our own crosses –– letting go of our rights and our desires to be “winners” –– will be what puts us on God’s side. Hopefully that is motivation enough for us.

Let us pray.


[1] From vol. 1, ch. 17, based on H. Reeve’s old translation of the original French, with some grammatical modernizations edited in by yours truly.

Who’s as Good as Dead?

  • Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16
  • Psalm 22:23-31
  • Romans 4:13-25
  • Mark 8:31-38

Two of our readings for today come from chapters (Genesis 17 and Romans 4) which take on one of the more controversial themes in the Bible: circumcision –– particularly in its role in God’s covenant with Abraham. Yet those who organized the cycle of lectionary readings here, in their infinite wisdom, have (ironically) cut those parts away.

Perhaps they’re afraid of the subject being difficult for clergymen to talk about in “family friendly” settings… or perhaps they were trying to avoid giving preachers like me an opportunity to tell penis jokes from the pulpit. I’ll briefly put those fears to rest.

The best basic explanation of circumcision I have read, specifically intended to avoid offending those with small children by offending others instead, is one by columnist Dave Barry. In a piece entitled “The Unkindest Cut of All” he starts out by telling, somewhat resentfully, of how some newspapers had refused to publish his previous column on the subject of farting. Among these were the Portland Oregonian and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Then, after warning that he intended to continue to write about matters that such newspapers might find offensive, he changes the topic to circumcision, which he describes as the process of “taking hold of a guy’s Oregonian and Snipping his Post-Dispatch right off.”

Why would they still do such a thing in this day and age? I’m not going to explore the arguments in that regard here. I’ll just relay the perspective on the subject shared by South African Jewish Comedian Nik Rabinowitz, who raised the subject in a show in front of a predominantly Muslim audience and said, “I don’t know how it is for you for you lot, but for us it’s that our women expect to get 20% off on everything.”

If you don’t want to explain those matters to your children, you don’t really have to. That’s probably why weren’t included in our liturgical reading of the day.

But frankly there are more difficult things to explain in these chapters than circumcision. In Romans 4:19 Paul claims that Abraham must have had particularly strong faith because, at nearly 100 years old, “his own body… was already as good as dead.” That was specifically in reference to his “Oregonian” in case you missed it; and yes, that would normally be the case. Another famous Jewish thinker who lived to over 100 years old, George Burns, said in his final years that trying to have intercourse at that age was “like trying to shoot pool with a piece of rope.” But Paul was somewhat mistaken in applying this general rule in Abraham’s case. For some reason in the first half of Genesis things didn’t work like that.

As the story goes Abraham lived to 175 years old, and Isaac, the son he had with his beloved wife and half-sister Sarah, lived to 180. But after that Abraham was widowed at around 136 years old, and being a very rich old man, apparently he didn’t have much trouble finding a new hot young wife by the name of Keturah (in Genesis 25). In that context he went on to prove just how thoroughly not dead his body was by fathering another six sons in his twilight years!

Beyond that it’s worth having a look at Genesis 11 and doing the math. Copy this down and check my calculations on this later:

  • When Abraham was born his father, Terah, was already 70 years old, and he went on to live another 135 years.
  • That year Abraham’s grandfather, Nehor, was 99 years old, and he went on to live another 49 years.
  • Abraham’s great-grandfather, Serug, was 129 that year, and he went on to live another 101 years!
  • His great-great-grandfather, Reu, would have been 161, and he went on to live another 78 years!
  • His 3 x great-grandfather, Peleg, would have been 191, and he went on to live another 48 years!
  • His 4 x great-grandfather, Eber, would have been 225, and he went on to live another 239 years!
  • His 5 x great-grandfather, Shelah, would have been 255, and he went on to live another 178 years!
  • His 6 x great-grandfather, Arpachshad, would have been 290, and he went on to live another 148 years!
  • His 7 x great-grandfather, Shem, would have been 390, and he went on to live another 210 years!
  • And to top it all off, the oldest man on earth at the time of Abraham’s birth, according to the account in Genesis, was his 8 x great-grandfather, Noah, the ark builder, who would have been 892 years old at the time of Abraham’s birth, and who is reported to have lived to 950 years old, or until around Abraham’s 58th birthday!

So in other words there was an unbroken male lineage of 11 generations alive at Abraham’s time; 12 if you count his nephew Lot. By the time Isaac was born some gaps had formed in this living ancestry, but he still could have met 7 living members of his male lineage, from his 8 x great-grandfather Shem down to father Abraham.

The one time Isaac managed to get his wife pregnant was when he was 60 years old (Genesis 25:26), resulting in the twins Esau and Jacob. So Shem could have met them as well, and perhaps even their children and grand-children. Even more incredible, by this account Noah’s son Shem, and his grandson Shelah and great-grandson Eber would all have outlived their distant descendant Abraham. Now try to find a way to explain all of that stuff to your kids!

Suffice to say, there are plenty of other challenges involved in taking all of the details of Genesis accounts literally as history than just figuring out how all the animals fit into Noah’s ark, and how, from there, all the kangaroos migrated to Australia without leaving any surviving offspring in Asia along the way.

But let’s set all of those troubling logistical and technical matters aside for the moment here and see what we can find in terms of positive lessons in this story. As much as Paul seems to have missed the context in assuming that Abraham must have had great faith because of having a functionally dead “Oregonian,” when it came to Sarah’s womb being dried up he had pretty good reason to be hopeless already. So yes, he was trusting God in a rather impossible situation.

Beyond that Paul had his reasons for trying to segue from circumcision to speaking symbolically about death, which is very important theme in the book of Romans, and in Paul’s writing in general. Symbolic consideration of death is the core metaphor of Romans 6.  Some other day we’ll take a sermon to focus in more depth on that topic; but for now, suffice to say, Paul wants to make the point that as Christians we have to go through a sort of identification with the experience of death to get to the thrilling part of identifying with Christ’s resurrection. Death, in the sort of symbolic sense in which Paul introduces it here, cuts us off from responsibilities to abide by old, dysfunctional patterns that were part of life as we knew it before this sort of death came along. After that a new form of life can take shape for us, not as zombies coming back from the dead in some partial sort of way, but as a whole new sort of person who is more alive than ever. Thus we can be the most completely “Grateful Dead” people that the world has ever known.

But this freedom does not come in any sort of cheap and easy way. It’s not something that we can discover through various forms of chemical recreation –– as some claiming the title of “dead-heads” have attempted over the years –– or through other lazy forms of escapism.

This is what Jesus was starting to communicate to his audience in the end of Mark 8. Jesus had not been crucified yet, and his followers were still more expecting that he would be the hero of a conquering military revolution than that he would end up being tortured to death, Romans style, as a cursed common criminal. So why was he telling them that to be his followers they would have to get themselves crucified?

In telling them this, not only was he starting to help them adjust to a change in perspective regarding what sort of Messiah he had come to be; he was also making them stop and think about what is really more important than live itself. What is the aspect of oneself that one stands to lose in the process of gaining “the whole world”? What is the part of our assumed identities that Jesus is telling us we need to be ready to let go of to really be his followers, and how can losing our lives in this sort of way save them? What was the good news that made the possibility of being tortured to death and all that goes with it worthwhile?

Part of letting go of our old life, in the sort of way that both Paul and Jesus are talking about here, is to consider all of the sorts of things that the devil used to tempt Jesus after his baptism –– satisfaction of physical appetites, epic power, and political control (Matthew 4:3-11) –– as things that no longer relate to life as we know it; as thing we no longer consider to be worth living for.

Letting a self-preservation instinct and a drive toward basic measures of success govern our lives might feel natural, but in the end it results in losing your soul. What is ultimately most worth living for –– the thing that as a follower of Jesus really makes you you –– is to be accepted and loved by God in spite of how different from him we ultimately are. From there this is worked out in our lives by “paying forward” this gift of undeserved love and acceptance to those Jesus called “the least of these.” This is the power of God’s kingdom that Jesus came to bring, which some of those in his audience saw come in power before they literally died themselves.

But this is not a matter of having all that we used to live for ripped away from us, as some would try to make you believe. Those who would claim to be doing God’s work in the process of taking away your possessions, destroying your reputation and prevention you from having a sense of control over your own life are indeed “thieves and robbers” (John 10:8). Our reading today from the Psalms makes that especially clear:

“For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
…The poor will eat and be satisfied.”  

The experience of “dying to yourself” and starting life over again as a subject of God’s kingdom, and as a friend of God, is not something that anyone can force onto anyone else, or somehow push them into. It is something that each of us must take up for ourselves, and unlike literal physical death, it requires a certain amount of discipline and practice to abide by this new principle.  (See Romans 7:7-25 if you have any doubts about that matter.) In that regard our gratefully dead experience is significantly different from circumcision, and even from the impotence of old age. It is a manifestation of God’s love, leading us into the fullest possible life, through God giving us the option of choosing something completely beyond our selfish limitations.

So how ready are you to be as good as dead in this sort of way? In all good will I wish for you the experience of this aspect of God’s amazing gift of death. It really is, ironically in a sense, the best this life has to offer.

Let us pray.





Appealing to God for a Clean Conscience

  • Genesis 9:8-17
  • Psalm 25:1-10
  • 1 Peter 3:18-22
  • Mark 1:9-15

Our passages for this week have a sort of funny set of connections between them. We start out by considering the time of Lent which we have just entered into: 40 days of limiting our appetites being based on Jesus’ time of fasting and being tempted in the wilderness. Since we are in the Gospel of Mark this year, and since the temptation of Jesus is one of the things Mark covers particularly briefly, that leads us back to Jesus’ baptism by John, which his time in the wilderness followed on from started. That leads to Peter’s comparison between baptism and the flood of Noah’s time. That leads us to the promise we find in Genesis regarding “the rainbow connection”. That brings us back to the joys of having a covenant with God in our reading from the Psalms for the day.

It almost makes me want to start singing the Beatles’ “Long and Winding Road”!

So how much of that should we try to cover, and where should we hope to wind up in looking at such a collection of passages?

Let’s start by getting some of the difficult business out of the way to start with. A basic literal reading of Genesis 9 tells us that God made the first rainbow ever after the flood as a sort of a reminder to himself not to wipe out all flying birds and land mammals (including humans) again. This, we are to understand, was one of those things that God was telling Moses about as Moses was leading the people of Israel in a generation of aimless wandering in the wilderness; while the people were continuously upset with him and water shortages were regularly on their minds. Thus it would seem pretty clear to me that the subjects of water and the urge to kill something were pretty strongly associated with each other in Moses’ mind at the time. Once in a while he and God got to talking about the whole idea of killing off all of these miserable rebellious Israelites and starting over again (e.g. Exodus 32). In some ways it sort of seems here like the God Moses was talking to much of the time was quite a bit like Moses in these regards.

So with that in mind can I say something sort of scandalous here? I don’t think Moses got this part right; I don’t believe that God needed to refract light through an array of raindrops to remind himself not to wipe us all out. I think a lot of us need to be reminded not to go on killing sprees when we get frustrated with our fellow man in general; and with those whose carelessness, stupidity and nasty aggressions are continuously making our lives miserable in particular. If I had the power to call down fire from heaven on particular people, or to make the ground open up and swallow others, I would be very seriously tempted to use those powers on certain individuals and offices that I have had to deal with lately! I need to be reminded once in a while not to let those sorts of fantasies occupy my mind! But I honestly don’t believe that God needs those sorts of reminders. Moses saw things differently. Perhaps that was one of the things Jesus had to talk with him about on the Mount of the Transfiguration…

To paraphrase the moto of my virtual friend Brian Zahnd, God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. Jesus came to reveal what God is really like. Before that people had a rather limited understanding of what God was really like. Thus we haven’t always known what God is like, but now we do.

God does not hate people. We as people tend to get rather frustrated with each other, and in that process we tend to condemn each other to all sorts of damnation. That’s just what we people are like. It comes rather naturally to us to assume that God thinks the same as we do in this regard. Jesus’ epic self-sacrifice shows us that this isn’t at all the case.

This brings us to the issue of baptism as Peter talks about it in the portion from his epistle that we read today. Why do we need to be baptized? I don’t want to go into all of the disputes between denominations over infant baptism, baptismal regeneration and the like. Suffice to say there are sincere people of all different levels of conservatism or liberalism in their orthodoxy who dogmatically hold very different opinions from each other on this matter, having nothing to do with how conservative or liberal they are. I would rather just like to draw your attention to three things Peter has to say about this subject in verse 22 in particular:
1. There isn’t any literal washing going on here.
2. The ceremony is a form of appeal to God to cleanse our consciences.
3. The resurrection of Jesus is the operative power that we base this appeal on.

Peter’s brother, Andrew, had been a follower of John the Baptist (John 1:35 & 40) in his days dunking people in the Jordan River just outside of Jericho, so Peter was quite well aware of what that operation was all about. This wasn’t a particularly sparkling clean bit of water. In 2 Kings 5 the Syrian general Naaman, who was hoping to be cured of a nasty skin condition by the prophet Elisha, got seriously upset when he was told to go wash in the Jordan. Not only was this river not the closest available place to wash, but it was not the sort of clean, respectable river that befit a general’s status! But travelling a rather inconvenient distance to go soak in this muddy, smelly stream was part of the process of Naaman humbling himself that God used to bring about his cure. With this in mind we can surmise that the process of being baptized in the Jordan didn’t make anyone all that much cleaner or better smelling for the experience. The point of the ritual wasn’t to make the person clean in any literal, physical sense. The point was rather for the person being baptized, in all humility, to recognize that there was something about him/her that needed to be taken care of before he/she could be acceptable to God, or to other people, or perhaps even to him-/herself. It was a process of letting go of any pride of position in asking for God’s help.

When Jesus went to the Jordan to be baptized by John he too was letting go of the pride he was entitled to in his position as God incarnate. He was embarking on a mission of further and further humbling himself in being identified with the most painful and despised elements of the human experience, ultimately leading to his being tortured to death as a common criminal. His being baptized was not an exercise in being cleansed, but in being humiliated, starting him down a path that led to the cross by way of many triumphant moments and many further humiliations. For others the exercise in humility was a way of enabling people to get over themselves. In Jesus’ case he wasn’t the one who needed to get over himself; he humiliated himself as an act of love so that those who follow him can get over themselves.

So what is the problem that we need to deal with by way of this humiliation in relation to? Is it a matter of appeasing God’s natural hatred for us? There are a number of so-called Christian preachers out there who believe this is the case, but I am not one of them. Simply put, if God was prone to hating and rejecting us then he wouldn’t have sent Jesus to die for us.

Or is the problem our reconciliation with other people? In some limited ways, perhaps so, but not decisively. Many of our problems with other people have to do with our own selfish inclinations that they fail to respect, and we need to find ways to fix those things when they are within our power to do so; but we cannot make the acceptance of others the ultimate standard that we live by. Haters are going to hate, and there is little we can do to fix that in many cases.

The main thing we need to fix through the humility symbolized by baptism is our relationship with ourselves; our conscience. Baptism is an appeal to God –– a prayer for his help in dealing with the guilt, the self-rejection and the moral insufficiency that we all feel at times. It is not a matter of doing away with our sense of shame we rightly experience when we cause serious damage to ourselves and others through our moral failures; baptism isn’t intended to make us into contented psychopaths. It is a matter of knowing and believing that we can be accepted in spite of our failures –– those we own up to and even those we remain unaware of –– through the humiliating process of getting that Jordan mud all over us.

But how can we know that we are justified in accepting ourselves –– in having our consciences cleansed –– through such an exercise in humility? Peter tells us that Jesus’ resurrection is the deciding factor here. If Jesus were just another guy with a guilty conscience who went to get dunked by John in the smelly Jordan as a way of trying to deal with it, and if everything which followed in his earthly ministry had to do with his own processes of working out his existential angst, there would have been nothing for us to gain through associating ourselves with him. But Jesus was more than that. Jesus proved that he actually had a uniquely divine power in his life through his conquest of death. This demonstrates that he wasn’t humbling himself for his own sake; he was humbling himself for ours.

Lent is a season when we as Christians traditionally humble ourselves and identify with Jesus’ process of humbling himself. For many this means trying to spend a month and a half not indulging some of the minor vices we worry about being addicted to, and there’s a lot to be said for using the season of Lent for breaking bad habits. But as a particular challenge for Lent this year, what if we just try to remember to keep looking at the rainbow, figuratively speaking, and reminding ourselves, “Oh yeah, destroying sinners isn’t one of God’s operative priorities anymore. So maybe I too should get over my urge to kill something.” If other haters are going to keep on hating regardless of what we do we can thus at least free our consciences from the burden of having their same problem.

I realize that this is far easier said than done, but let’s take this as a challenge for the season of Lent anyway. How many of you are up for the challenge?

Let us pray.

Men Who Saw God

  • 2 Kings 2:1-12
  • Psalm 50:1-6
  • 2 Corinthians 4:3-6
  • Mark 9:2-9

Transfiguration Sunday. Perhaps the most underrated holiday of the year. Today we jump out of order from looking at the first couple chapters of the Gospel of Mark to about 2/3 of the way down through, but that’s probably the only thing any of us are doing different to celebrate this day. It’s not even a day that most people are any more likely to attend church than any other “off week” Sunday.

There are many questions that come to mind in considering the story for this day. Why specifically Moses and Elijah? How did Peter, James and John recognize them? What did Jesus talk about with them? Whose benefit was this discussion for? In what sort of form did the prophets come there? Could there have been any logistical possibility of Peter’s triple worship center idea being realized? What essentially changed because of this event? Why was it so important to keep it a secret?

Since for most of you this is just a normal Sunday, and you probably haven’t set extra time aside for listening to someone preach at length about the transfiguration, I won’t try to talk about all of those questions. Let’s just look at the first one then.

Have you ever played some variation of the game where you have to pick any two people, living or dead, that you would most like to have dinner with? It might be an indictment of the limits of my imagination, but I might pick US president John Adams, and then the earliest ancestor of mine I have been able to discover with the same family name that I have. What if we change the rules so that the characters come from the Old Testament? My first choice would probably be Abishag, the beautiful young woman who was put in charge of keeping King David’s body warm at the end of his life. She would know where all the skeletons were buried, so to speak, and I get the impression that there was a lot more to her than her brief mention in the first couple chapters of Second Kings lets on. After her I’d probably want to talk to Daniel, asking him about what it was like working with the Babylonians, did he ever meet Jeremiah, and how he came by those wild apocalyptic visions of his.

Jesus, however, didn’t have to settle for hypothetical speculation on this matter; he did get to pick which old prophets he would talk to, and his choices were Moses and Elijah. So how did those two get the call-up?

Jesus was not looking for the satisfaction of his intellectual curiosity about these men’s careers, like I would be with my choices; he knew already all that he needed to know about their experiences. But maybe we need to know a bit more about them ourselves. So let’s take a quick look at some of the things Moses and Elijah had in common.

  1. Their careers were both defined by struggles against ungodly rulers.

The definitive moment of Moses life was in leading the Exodus from Egypt, standing up to the Pharaoh and demonstrating that he could get really bad stuff to happen to the Egyptians if they didn’t show the Hebrews some respect, even if they were slaves. Moses lacked confidence in this business from the start, and insisted that God let him take is big brother, Aaron, along as a spokesman. Even so, with that confidence boost in place, Moses still ended up doing most of the talking. He also did all of the “magic” needed to bring the Pharaoh around to letting his people go, but even after the Exodus he remained “concerned” about the Egyptians finding them and re-capturing them, so after the “Red Sea incident” they took the “scenic route” towards Canaan, and a trip which normally should have taken 2 or 3 weeks ended up taking them 40 years!

Elijah’s nemesis was theoretically an Israelite king named Ahab, but the person who was calling the shots, for the northern kingdom, and who was Elijah’s proper enemy here, was Ahab’s wife, Jezebel. She had converted the king to her own religion, and she had a systematic program going for killing off representatives of the God of Israel. So speaking for God to this nasty royal couple, Elijah told them that rain was not going to fall until he gave the word. Elijah then spent three years in hiding before his famous showdown with the prophets of Baal, where he won by getting fire to come from heaven, after which he had all 850 of “the opposing team” killed.

  1. They both called on God to kill massive numbers of their enemies.

Those prophets of Baal from the showdown were not the only ones Elijah had killed. Nor was there anything miraculous about the way that particular batch of enemies died: it was just a basic mass execution by sword in a valley on the north side of the mountain where they met. The miraculous killing that Elijah did was to call down fire from heaven to burn up two separate army units that came to arrest him a few years later. James and John in particular among Jesus’ followers thought that was totally epic, and they really wanted to see something like that themselves (Luke 9:54).

Moses’ career as a prophet began when he ran away from the Pharaoh’s palace after being blackmailed by a witness to a murder he committed (Exodus 2:11-15). The climax of the plagues he brought on Egypt was the killing of firstborn sons, and he initiated a practice in battle of killing all male enemies of any age, and all females who had lost their virginity already, but saving the virgin girls as part of the spoils of battle (Numbers 31:7-18).   Beyond that Moses called on God not only to do away with the enemies of Israel, but also the rebels within the camp, in rather dramatic ways. (See, for example, Exodus 32 and Numbers 16.)

  1. They both had amazing direct encounters with God.

Moses in some places was reported to speak face-to-face with God as a good friend (Exodus 33:11, Numbers 12:8), but in the same chapter in Exodus it tells us that God refused to show Moses his face for safety sake (verses 18-23). In any case, Moses’ close contact with God was thoroughly understood as being greater than that of other prophets.

Elijah had his own direct confrontation with God in I Kings 19, where God didn’t show up in all of the dramatic stuff the prophet expected to find him in, but rather in a gentle whisper.

These passages seem to contradict John 1:18, where the gospel writer claims that “no one has ever seen God.” Didn’t Moses and Elijah in particular see him? John would probably reply, “Yes, I know, in some limited sense they both did, and far more powerfully than other holy men, but compared to what we have seen in Jesus, that was just a shadow.” We’ll come back around to this.

  1. The fate of their bodies was a serious mystery in both cases.

Moses never had a shrine built around his tomb like most great men of old, especially those who had been associated with Egyptian culture. It says in the end of Deuteronomy that God buried Moses in a secret grave that no one had been able to find. The body of Moses is also listed as an issue of spiritual warfare in the ninth verse of the little epistle of Jude. What did the devil want with Moses’ body? what was the angelic army trying to protect it from, and for?

Then as we read today in 2 Kings 2, Elijah did not die in the normal way, but he was rather swept away in a fiery chariot with fiery horses. Let’s leave all of the alien spacecraft theories out of this for now and just say that the means by which Elijah was taken away was rather unique.

So one speculation has been that Moses and Elijah’s bodies were more accessible to be reanimated for meeting with Jesus than those of other holy men. Let the listener be responsible for her or his own beliefs in that matter.

  1. They both had very able apprentices which took over their work at the end of their lives.

Finally for today, one major feature of both of these great old men of God was that they both had servant side-kicks who they groomed to take over after them. In fact statistically both of them were significantly outdone by their protégé-successors. Joshua presided over the killing of more “bad guys” than Moses did, and he is believed to have been the leader who did the most to establish the Israelites within the land which they believed God had given them special rights to. Elisha asked for a “double portion” of Elijah’s spirit, which, as the story goes, meant doing twice as many miracles, starting with having his hecklers mauled by bears (2 Kings 2:23-4) and finishing with a man who fell into his tomb being raised from the dead (2 Kings 13:21).

Here’s the interesting bit: there would have been more symmetry in the matter for Jesus to have met with Joshua (whom Jesus was actually named after) and Elisha, after John the Baptist having met with Moses and Elijah. Jesus’ ministry had begun with submission to John’s baptism, just as Joshua’s had begun with being part of Moses’ encounters with God at the tent of meeting and just has Elisha’s career began by following Elijah through the Jordan River. Jesus then went on to accomplish more than John the way that Joshua out-performed Moses and Elisha out-performed Elijah. John the Baptist, more than Jesus, was focused on speaking truth to those in power –– the Herod of their age in particular. Jesus, like Joshua and Elisha, was more focused on bringing God’s compassion and deliverance to broader masses of people.

But the message on the Mount of Transfiguration was that Jesus was not a follow-up to a great man of God; he was the main act. And in reversing the priority between the great trail blazing prophet and the brilliant miracle-working apprentice, Jesus took the emphasis away from political power and brought it around to God’s compassion. Perhaps this is what Jesus had to talk about with the other great spiritual leaders he met in glorified form up there.

Perhaps he was saying to Elijah, “Remember that quiet whisper you encountered God in when you were hiding out from Jezebel that time? That was me. I was trying to help you cool off and realize that things were entirely under control still, in spite of that nasty lady’s power plays. In the end power is a distant secondary issue; recognizing the value of all made in God’s image is the big thing. Now that you’ve been in heaven for a while you’re starting to realize this, aren’t you?”

Perhaps he was saying to Moses, “My father never really wanted to wipe out this miserable, whiney trouble makers you led out of Egypt. The idea was to get you thinking compassionately towards even all of those who were trying to make your life miserable. Your temper was part of the plan all along, just like Elijah’s over there, but you needed to see the big picture beyond your frustrations. I’m glad we worked that out. And as to your not getting involved in all of the killing to take over territory on the west side of the Jordan, trust me, you didn’t need the thrill.”

Perhaps they were talking about legacies, and laughing together about how those sons of Zebedee over there were still so interested in repeating Elijah’s fire from heaven stunt. In between the conversation could have covered how Israel was intended all along to be a light unto the Gentiles (Isaiah 42: 6), to stop all forms of human sacrifice in the region from continuing as part of the mainstream culture, and those of other nations realize that there is a compassionate ultimate guiding power in the universe to which we are all responsible for the way we treat others. All that land that Moses looked out over as his life was drawing to a close was not the issue. All the power struggles between the tribes as they tried to get settled into that territory were not the issue. The tribes of Israel under the Judges that came after Joshua certainly didn’t get this. The northern kingdom of Israel, after their big split in Rehoboam’s time, never really got their act together in this sense. Thus the legacies of both Moses’ and Elijah’s life work in terms of bringing their people as a whole on track with the message of justice and mercy wasn’t looking that great at that point. What, in turn, would Jesus’ legacy be? Plenty of abuse and misinterpretation for sure, but that’s where Jesus was probably reminding everyone there that they were all working towards the sort of kingdom that is ultimately outside of this world anyway.

So as we finish here and move towards home to continue our celebrations of this holiday with family and friends, let us remember that we too are in the service of a kingdom not of this world. Let us always bear in mind the eternal purpose of building Christ’s kingdom within ourselves. Let us ever meditate on the meaning of what it truly means to see God.

Let us pray.